A Self-Administered Gut Punch

Fern’s journals

A part of me envies the people who are really good at avoiding what they know or what they believe will make them feel lousy. Apparently I wasn’t paying attention when that nifty avoidance trick was being taught. I have an unerring ability to walk straight into what is most assuredly going to stir up one kind of emotional agony or another, even when I’ve been able to put away the greater part of such despair, sometimes decades ago. And so it is with Fern’s recovered journals. I have finally gone through the 36 journals that I received the day after Thanksgiving. I approached these notebooks with a combination of eagerness, nostalgia and trepidation. During our youth, we read each other excerpts from what we wrote every night. Even when that stopped, I had a pretty good idea of what her entries were like as our relationship evolved steadily, with only one short break, got over thirty years.

A new photo for me, unearthed from one of the journals

Way back in October, 1988, I gave up on ever acquiring them, just days after learning of her death. I remember everything about the week of October 2nd, 1988. That Sunday night, I talked on the phone with Fern for a very long time. She was in terrible shape. She’d recently spent a month as a resident of an in-house therapy unit in a Utah hospital. Her depression and suicidal urges had reached new, dangerous levels. In my memory, her self-destructive thoughts had emerged in her teens. In their infancy, those thoughts alienated and frightened her. During our young lives together, between the average concerns of growing up, our relationship took on a different tone because of her scary impulses. I became a composite figure to her, a friend, a sibling, a mother and a counselor, the roles rotating as the mutable situations dictated. I loved her and I was willing to do what I could to help. So on that October night, a conversation about dying was nothing new. But this hospitalization was indeed new and different for Fern. I felt it was her last desperate attempt to go back to her pre-verbal time, to attach identities to the blank faces who’d caused her pain, to understand how she’d gotten to where she was, despite her valiant efforts to have a life. She’d signed on for hypnotherapy, sometimes an adjunct to traditional therapy. I remember reading about the potentially controversial aspects of this treatment, primarily concerns that sometimes, a therapist might “plant” false memories in a patient’s consciousness. A few cases like that made national news. At the time, I was only interested in what was specifically happening to Fern. In an utter failure of this country’s health care system, she was released from the hospital when her insurance coverage, which included a limited 30-day inpatient maximum clause, came to an end. Her hypnotic sessions had stripped away many of her defenses and had left her exhausted and uncertain. Her current mental condition, however, wasn’t the bottom line in her release.

A happier face

On the phone that night, she told me that she felt that she’d gotten to the root of her emotional damage. She thought it was too much to bear. We were two weeks away from our 20th high school reunion. After all her painful years, I tried telling her that she survive two more weeks. That we’d meet in Chicago, experience the reunion, and that as she’d done periodically in the past, she’d come home with Michael and me. She’d be safe and well-cared for; we’d find her more help to see her through this latest confrontation with the past. All she had to do was hang on a bit longer. After an hour or so, she said that the worst part about contemplating suicide was imagining how painful it would be for the loved ones left behind. We said “I love you,” and hung up. The next night, Monday, I woke in the middle of the night. I’d dreamed that I was dying and was sobbing uncontrollably next to Michael, who was doing his best to convince me that I was still alive. I was so terrified. Two nights later, on Wednesday evening, I went out for a night off from mom duty.

I went to see the film, “Gorillas in the Mist,” a grueling watch about the murder of Dian Fossey, the primatologist and conservationist. I came home feeling wrung out. I was describing the film to Michael when the phone rang. A woman whose voice I didn’t recognize, asked me if I was a friend of Fern’s. When I confirmed my identity, she apologetically told me that Fern had killed herself Monday night. I collapsed in hysteria, throwing the phone to Michael who had the presence of mind to get contact details from this person named Mary, before attending to me. I was utterly crushed, having quickly realized that Fern’s Sunday night call was actually a goodbye and that my Monday night dream was some cosmic, incomprehensible moment of me experiencing Fern’s death. It was all too much. I was overcome with grief, but in the next few days, I talked to these unknown Utah people, to learn what they could tell me about what had happened. After Fern was found in her car in a Utah canyon, her parents and brother were contacted, had flown west immediately for a fast cremation, and an equally quick trip back to Chicago. Her friends out there were surprised that I wasn’t around, but Fern’s mother told them that they were trying to spare me, worried about my potential response. I was furious. I was robbed of any possible closure by her family, with whom Fern’s relationship was always a tangled mess. I talked to these women for hours, and got to the journals topic immediately. I wanted desperately to keep all those private thoughts of hers away from her family’s scrutiny, as well as anyone else’s. I think I spent three straight days begging for someone to box them up and ship them to me, offering money and my whole aching soul. Ultimately I knew I was making a futile effort. Fern had made no actual provisions about her belongings. Michael and I spent a long time talking about how to adjust to what was the reality in front of my face – that the journals were lost to me, no matter how wrong that felt. I had to hold all that was between Fern and me in my mind, absent the concrete notebooks. Stuff was stuff, we said. I had to let that physical part go. And I did until they emerged from the universe.

I’ve spent the better part of the last six days submerged in these volumes. In a previous blog, I noted that no matter how close, how intimate you can be with another person, there are deep parts of ourselves that defy sharing. After this time spent running my hands over all these pages, seeing the familiar handwriting, finally again and again, I’m aware that what I thought I understood about Fern’s profound mental pain was the proverbial tip of the iceberg. What is more remarkable is how she managed her illness. In her far too short life, she was still able to access her talents and put them forth into the world. She was a published author. She was multi-lingual. She spent part of her professional life as a valued court reporter because her flying fingers were not only swift but accurate. She played piano, loved bowling, nature, gardening and cooking. While her demons’ ambushes grew more powerful and frequent as she grew older, she somehow remained functional, which is miraculous. I was moved in many different ways as I made my way through her history. I laughed more than I thought I could at her dark humor, cringed at some of her blunt self-assessments and was profoundly touched to see that my efforts to help her were on her mind as her energy for survival waned. I picked out a few lines from different moments that truly touched me.

May, 1966 – Age 15

“Renee is smart, potentially, but doesn’t study. She’s sarcastic, funny, bad-tempered, a liar and is undependable. We have a lot of fun with each other.”

May, 1967 – Age 16

“Renee, I love you, my rock and my salvation.”

Age 18
Age 18
Age 19
Age 37

But I bring an additional 34 years to this incredible unearthing of the past, almost as many years as the 37 I spent in my entire relationship with Fern. There are many years missing from what I received in these boxes. Our graduation years, 1964 and 1968 were not included. Almost all of the 1970’s are absent, years which included college graduation, grad school, my marriage and hers, albeit a brief one. Were they lost along the way, during this long journey to me? I know that her writing continued uninterrupted. The mystery about those lost years will remain in my mind, despite my ability, at least for now to remember parts of them all. In addition, my familiarity with medical issues, developed out of necessity, emerged and overtook my emotional response as I learned that Fern was being treated with a variety of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications and sleeping pills for a number of years before she died. I’m left wondering how the potential combinations of these drugs might have contributed to her suicidal thoughts, and how that chemical tampering might have impaired her judgment. One particular agent from the Benzodiazepine family was particularly dangerous and was banned in the UK in 1992. But in this country, the FDA reviewed the medication and continued its approval. I’m not doing myself or anyone else much good by dwelling on this matter, but it’s hard to ignore. Three decades ago, there might not have been enough studies to determine which patient was a candidate for these powerful substances. Even today, we all know the dreadful outcomes of prescribed medications. I’ll need to let go of what I can’t do anything about, but that might take more time.

A long time ago, I gathered all the class photos of me and Fern from elementary school through high school and laid them out in chronological order on my study floor. I noted how with each successive year, Fern’s eyes seemed to get sadder and slightly more paranoid. In my head, I hear my mom’s voice repeating that line about how the eyes are the windows to the soul. I suppose that’s fair. These journals then, are the doors, swung wide open. I think it’s my job to close them now. At first I thought they might join her collected works of fiction, a couple of novels, poetry and her masters’ and PhD theses which are located at the universities where she received her degrees. But after viewing them I’m now certain that just as I wanted to guard her privacy in 1988, I still feel the same way. If I thought that Fern’s struggles out in the daylight might somehow make life better for someone else, I wouldn’t hesitate to put them out there. But I don’t. No one who hurt her can be brought to justice – they are all dead. Fern’s torment is over. For a long time, I tried to be her helper. What’s left for me to do is stand watch over her memory. I can do that.

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